Jewish Varieties

Judaism exists as a conglomeration of diverse and unique philosophies.

Although Judaism is often portrayed as a monolith, it is composed of many diverse denominations. They all have their own individuality yet are interconnected by similar core belief values. Denominations, often called sects, factions or branches, are categories for a more specific religious affiliation within the broad theology of Judaism. While fundamental values of love, humility, service and fidelity all exist at some capacity across all Jewish denominations, each denomination is differentiated and unique in their philosophical approaches to Jewish tradition, as well as their interpretation of Jewish law and the Torah.

The largest affiliation to Jewish denomination exists within the theology of Reform Judaism, as about 35 percent of American Jews identify within this denomination. This denomination is known for its progressive and contemporary adaptations of Judaism while maintaining most of the Jewish ethical traditions and obligations from of Jewish law. This movement adapts Judaism to modern sensibilities and is known for its dedication to progressive values, specifically, social justice. Overall, personal choice is valued regarding ritual observance in the Reform sect.

Conservative Judaism interprets Jewish law and mandates as obligations in a broad range of observance. This denomination resembles Reform Judaism’s beliefs on some issues, like driving to synagogue on Shabbat, as well as gender-egalitarian prayer. However, it also resembles some tropes of Orthodox Judaism, such as keeping Kosher and philosophies on intermarriage. This contrasting spectrum of beliefs ranging from liberal to more orthodox defines Conservative Judaism as the halfway point between Reform and Orthodox Judaism.

Orthodox Judaism is characterized by its adherence to a traditional understanding of Jewish law. Strict observance to Shabbat, Kosher laws and intrinsic Jewish values are defining characteristics of Orthodox Judaism. This denomination is the longest-lasting sect, as the orthodox community tends to remain in practice and observance through many generations. Orthodox Judaism exists as several smaller denominations. Modern Orthodox Judaism brings together traditional observances of Jewish law with secular modernity. Haredi Judaism often referred to as Ultra-Orthodox and is distinguished by its black hats for men and modern dress for women. Haredi Judaism is the most loyal to traditional and strict interpretations of Jewish law and often engages the least with contemporary secular society. Another sub-group, Hasidic Judaism, comes from a spiritual revivalist movement that began in Eastern Europe in the 18th century and emphasizes an intimate and personal relationship with the divine through prayer and worship. Moreover, Yeshivish Judaism stems from Misnagdim who opposed the rise of Hasidic Judaism in Europe. This denomination celebrates the intellectual components of Jewish culture and practice, such as intense Talmud study for men. Open-Orthodox is the most contemporary subset of Orthodox Judaism, as it was founded in the 1990s. This form of Orthodox Judaism resembles the more progressive aspects of reform Judaism, such as support of greater opportunity for roles for women in positions of religious leadership.

Reconstructionist, Renewal and Humanistic Judaism are some of the newer sects of Judaism. Reconstructionist Judaism believes that Judaism is an evolving theology and questions the extent to which Jewish law is obligatory. This form of Judaism is quite modern and progressive, as its Reconstructionist rabbinical seminary was the first to admit openly LGBTQ+ students. Jewish Renewal is known for its harmony of ecstatic prayer as well as a focus on political, social and environmental issues. The most secular denomination is Humanistic Judaism, which emphasizes the celebration and indulgence of Jewish culture and history without the recognition of a god. This form of Judaism is nontheistic and practices human-centered ethics.

The practices and sects of Judaism are incredibly diverse. While those who identify as Jewish may all be thought of as practicing this religion in the same way, Judaism exists as a conglomeration of diverse and unique philosophies shaped into a multitude of practices. While most Jews identify with similar core values and theological beliefs, the way it is applied in their daily life varies greatly. The culture, diversity and history of this theology exist within immense and ever-expanding practices, truly reflecting the plurality of the Jewish people.

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Molly is a junior at Larchmont Charter School in Los Angeles. She is a Staff Writer for Fresh Ink for Teens.

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